Three weeks ago I stopped eating meat, despite having once written a post here titled “Eat More Bacon”. Peter Singer’s moral argument, combined with a deep notion of teleology, finally got to me. Now that I’ve made some obscure references, let’s talk about them and their relation to vegetarianism. This isn’t the only argument for vegetarianism, not even the only moral argument, but it’s the one that spoke to me, and finally got me to stop eating animals.
Peter Singer and moral imperatives
Princeton philosopher Peter Singer articulated a basic moral principle in his paper Famine, Affluence, and Morality that can be summed up as this: If you have the power to end or prevent suffering, you should. Doing otherwise means at best allowing preventable suffering to occur, and at worst participating in it. It is both bad and wrong. Suffering that can be prevented is unnecessary, and it shouldn’t be allowed to continue. Suffering that can’t be prevented, like a debilitating injury, is life happening. We do our best. Suffering that’s consented to, which as I understand is a basic tenet of Crossfit, isn’t really suffering because the people doing it desire it, and are sort of fine with it. So we shouldn’t participate in suffering.
Animals can suffer. That also seems pretty uncontroversial. Kicking dogs isn’t horrible because we don’t like the sounds they make, it’s horrible because they have feelings, and experience things like pain and fear. This gives rise to a lot of arguments from cruelty. Things like factory farming and kill floors are cruel, animals are kept in ways that are inhumane, etc. This is the sort of basic vegetarianism argument from cruelty. But there are also free range farms and ranches where animals live happy lives and are catered to from the time they’re born until the time they die, and the argument from cruelty falls a bit short on those ones. This is where teleology comes in.
From the Greek word meaning end, purpose or goal, teleology is the study of ends. It figures prominently in Aristotelian virtue ethics, which have to do with flourishing and the purpose of life. In the case of livestock, we supply their telos, their purpose. Livestock live so they can die to feed us. Every moment of their lives leads to that end, and afterward we give their remains purpose, turning them into delicious food for us to eat. This is true of animals in the cruelest factory farms and the noblest free range ranches. We have decided that their purpose is to become meat on our tables. Animals, not being particularly deep thinkers, aren’t really aware of this. Their concerns are more immediate, and they’re likely much happier on those free range places than in factory farms. That’s why we think of it as ethical food. But I’d argue that having a determined life, even if you don’t know about it, is suffering.
This seems uncontroversial too. We have a ton of dystopian media where the purpose of people’s lives is determined by something else, and it’s usually met with dismay and horror. The Matrix, where people are batteries. 1984, where people live to serve the state. Even in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Wold, where people are happy and provided for, we regard their happiness as hollow because their lives are still determined. Whether they know it or not, they suffer. Whether they’re happy or not, they suffer. It’s not even out of malice or cruelty, just out of carelessness. It serves the creation of a larger way of life that doesn’t care about which smaller bits suffer.
But suffering is suffering, and if we have the power to prevent suffering, we should. So I am, at least in the best way I can think of now. It’s a layered issue, and I can’t make a claim to ethical eating, whatever that might be. There are issues with working conditions regarding vegetables and other vegetarian staples, environmental concerns, the need of ranchers and farmers for livelihoods, and things like that. But I don’t want to be a part of that teleology anymore.
Bacon tastes good
Bacon does taste good. Pork chops are yummy. Chicken is rad. I like vegetables, but for the moment, I still want meat, because it is delicious and for thirty odd years has been a part of my lifestyle. But wanting something does not entitle me to it, and it does not entitle me to repurpose lives to suit my own. Even if those lives are very yummy.
So I stopped.